The Role of the Humanities in Environmental Education - GTEC Reader

As GTEC develops its curriculum as an educational organization, what role should the arts and culture play, or, in more academic terms, where does the study of the humanities fit in? To date, the climate crisis has been primarily understood and explained through the framework of science and within the technological language that is its lingua franca – carbon emissions, tipping points, temperature increases, climate pattern shifts, desertification, species extinction etc. We receive information via quantitative data bytes: percentages, levels, deadlines, and probabilities, and picture solutions such as the electrification of transportation, wind power, solar panels and a range of energy-efficient gadgets.

As science maps the trajectory of climate change, and the news reflects the ever-increasing peril we face globally, we feel that we are facing dark possibilities and an unknowable future. How does the human brain process such information, especially for those of us who are privileged and have been relatively insulated from the worst fallout of the ecological crisis? How would we experience a devastating increase in temperature? A paucity of rainfall? How can we imagine a future whose dimensions are obscure? As the story of climate change gets told again and again, we tend to experience anxiety and even dread about how the next decades may unfold. Communication through numbers is overwhelming; it is devastating in its implications and mind-numbing in its impartial facticity. Despite an extraordinary depth of scientific knowledge about the climate crisis and a proliferation of technologies to address it, a strong, sustained response is lacking. Thismay be because we need to create more of a culture of hope, resiliency, and change in response to this crisis.

In order to find the courage to evolve an impactful response to the climate crisis, science and technology must be partnered with arts and culture. In the poems and stories of our histories and traditions we find the ways in which human beings have faced existential challenges in the past. As we re-acquaint ourselves with these stories, we feel the resilience of spirit and witness the endless creativity with which we are collectively endowed:  our hearts are lifted and our imaginations brought to life. Novels such as American War by Omar El Akkad help us imagine what it might mean to experience the effects of climate change and how we might choose to respond. It is through storytelling that we hear the lyric verses of the Iliad and return home with Odysseus in the Odyssey. Images associated with these stories speak directly to our intuition, and enable us to tell a different story, a story that recognizes that we, too, have the creative potential and capability to transform our collective destiny. It is through the practice of storytelling that we can resist being desensitized by the uncertain future that we face.

As humans, we have a deep affinity for storytelling, and a deeply rooted capacity to reshape the narratives of our lives. An effective response to climate change begins with telling a different story, one that incorporates a perspective that is both historically broad, and socio-politically and geographically specific. Climate change events are social, historical, and cultural experiences as much as they are the subject of technological and scientific query -the global climate changes underway evoke a multitude of lived experiences all over the planet. It is through storytelling that we can make sense of these experiences and envision ways to respond with hope and determination.

Turning to GTEC’s story and its aim to become an educational institution focusing on the climate crisis: during the summer of 2020 while the pandemic was taking hold and after GTEC had cancelled its face-to-face community education programs, GTEC formed a Council for the Green New Economy. The Council was comprised of environmental experts such as B.C.’s Guy Dauncey, educators, economists and GTEC Board members. The Council was supported by a circle of subject matter experts in areas from retrofitting buildings to corporate social responsibility. The ensuing report called Rebuilding BC was well received by prominent environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Seth Klein and eventually resulted in meetings with members of the BC provincial government’s cabinet.

As Rebuilding BC circulated amongst the public, my friend and colleague, Michael Clague, President of the Community Arts Council of Vancouver reminded us of the importance of arts and culture in the reconstruction of society. This essay honours Michael’s concern.

A cadre of writers and artists, such as the poet Scott Lawrance and author and intellectual, Colin Sanders have contributed to GTEC via its online, free access publication called The GTEC Reader. In his essay on the work of Barry Lopez, Colin celebrates Lopez’ descriptions of the profound connection between human beings and their changing ecology. This essay highlights the implications of this interconnection across a range of topics from the impact of human activity on the environment to the injustices of colonization.[i] Lopez introduces the reader to his experience of indigenous knowledge and the possibility that such knowledge offers a rich and alternative understanding of our intrinsic relations to the natural world. In this essay citing Lopez, Colin also points to the significance of critical thinking in education – the importance of questioning ideas, theories, policies and institutions. This is a view of education that is about more than preparing graduates for employment.

Scott’s essay in The Reader explores the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Gary Snyder’s lifelong preoccupation with living in the world.[ii] Scott refers especially to Four Changesin which Snyder presents an analysis of our current conditions under four headings: population, pollution, consumption, and transformation. This manifesto is a clarion call for the radical transformation of a civilization that has radically overextended itself. In Four Changes,Snyder urges changes to the foundations of our society and our minds and offers a roadmap towards a new reality. Following Snyder, Scott proposes that the basic existential question is as much where am I,as it is who am I. In this view of education, poetry re-assumes its traditional role as the expression of human beings’ deepest aspirations and most powerful insights.

Suffice it to say, the humanities has an important voice in the GTEC story, a voice that needs to be given concrete expression in courses such as:

The Poetics of Climate Change
Literature and Ecology
History of Agriculture
Philosophy and the Natural World
Climate Change and Religion
Community Development, Activism and Social Change

In conclusion, a GTEC educational curriculum incorporating the humanities can provide an expanded historical, philosophical and poetic context in which climate change causes, solutions and alternatives can be explored and the impetus for social change enriched.[iii]

[i] Sanders, C. (2020). Cultivating the horizon. GTEC Reader, vol. 1, #3

[ii] Lawrance, S. (2020). Sheltering in place: Thoughts of Gary Snyder in a time of plague. GTEC Reader, vol. 1, #5

[iii] The authors are indebted to Colin Sanders for his constructive commentary on this essay.